Lighting up the dark: Window Wanderland

| Lauren Wallace-Thompson

The streets of my neighbourhood are unusually busy for a Saturday night in lockdown. Children in bobble hats whip past me on the dark pavements. Fairy lights twinkle and a group of students wrapped up in big coats stop together to admire a beautiful stained-glass window; a rainbow phoenix crafted entirely out of tissue paper. From somewhere down the street drifts the unmistakable sound of the opening bars of The Specials’ Ghost Town. Something very exciting is happening in Coventry.

These are the streets of the Chapelfields, Earlsdon, Whoberly and Spon End neighbourhoods in the south-west of the city of Coventry, transformed by residents themselves into a huge, open-air nighttime art gallery. This is Window Wanderland, a project which encourages communities all over the globe to come together, get creative and set-up their own illuminated window displays from their front rooms. Stepping out into the street, I can understand why the organisers describe Window Wanderland as “magical”. Everyone I meet is grinning. I am saying hello to strangers. And the streets that, thanks to a year in lockdown, I am completely bored of walking, are suddenly full of surprise, excitement and mystery. Window Wanderland has brought play and magic back into our lives.

Window Wanderland began in Bristol back in 2015, the brainchild of Lucy Reeves Khan. On her blog, Lucy explains how, following nearly a decade of isolation from chronic pain, she began nightly rehabilitation walks around her neighbourhood. “Seeing inside homes with the lights on and curtains open took me away from my pain,” she remembers. So she began asking friends if they would put something on display in their windows as a message to their neighbours, and the first Winter Wanderland was born.

Left: A stained-glass effect rainbow phoenix display in Earlsdon. The phoenix was adopted as a symbol of the City of Coventry rebuilding itself after WWII. Right: A window display urges the council to support better cycling infrastructure across the city.

Windows have taken on an extra significance during the COVID-19 pandemic with rainbow signs of hope displayed, a visual message of “thank you” to the keyworkers who continued to labour throughout the pandemic to keep us safe and fed. While we have all been staying inside, our windows have provided one of our few non-digital connections to the world.

Window Wanderland, then, is the perfect event for a dark winter of lockdown. It’s COVID-secure – people make the window displays themselves in their houses, and walk socially distanced around the streets to view them. It’s also a way for the community to talk to one another through the medium of creativity and fun. “Art has never been more important,” says Jay, one the community organisers in Coventry. “In times of difficulty it’s so important for communities and individuals to express themselves creatively”. This is where the multiple benefits of Window Wanderland really become apparent. Individuals feel the therapeutic effects of creating and making their windows, and then the whole community can experience and enjoy their public art. And Jay thinks the timing is important too: “the winter months can be a difficult time for managing mental health, and one of the ways we can tackle this and stay healthy and connected is to create and share our artwork”.

“We always knew the community would love the opportunity to take part in their own Wanderland event,” says Lucie, another organiser. And she’s right: the map of my local Window Wanderland shows 326 houses signed up to take part, and this is just one of ten areas of Coventry who are participating throughout February and March.

The enthusiasm for Window Wanderland as an antidote to lockdown ennui is replicated across the country. Window Wanderland HQ tells me that they have seen a 200% increase in the number of Wanderlands being organised this year. The concept is also spreading across the globe: the first USA Window Wanderland was held two weekends ago, and James Bay in Canada is taking part for the third year running.

There have, of course, been some challenges in organising a mass community event in the middle of a pandemic. Facebook pages and a very active Whatsapp group have formed the core of the planning and publicising, with a leaflet delivery and residents encouraged to talk to their neighbours about the event so that people who are not online can get involved too. Community art group Foleshill Creates have been running online Zoom workshops to help with inspiration and window-building, offering free packs of materials to those who need them and also encouraging people to create with whatever they have around them – like books, fairy lights and cuddly toys.

Walking around on the opening night of Window Wanderland, I am struck by the different messages and meaning that people have put into their art: windows in memory of loved ones lost, windows with political and campaigning messages, and teachings about Coventry’s history. I learn things about my neighbours and about my home city. People are also keen to tell me why they wanted to take part: “Not only am I creating art for my own wellbeing, but to support my neighbours and people in our local community who will visit,” says Elina. She hopes that the event will “put a smile on someone’s face” as “families, singles, retired people, older people, teenagers and everyone else in-between go on an adventure to discover a trail they really like”.

This event is one of the first things in the calendar for Coventry’s year as UK City of Culture 2021, and the unofficial theme that shines through the darkness is the way that the residents have taken the city into their heart. Windows are a celebration of all things Coventry: the three spires of its skyline; the majestic bombed-out cathedral; its industrial heritage of watches, bicycles, motorcars and planes; the legend of Lady Godiva; and its music from Delia Derbyshire to Two Tone. Window Wanderland is the perfect project to kick off Coventry’s year as UK City of Culture because it shows how anything and anyone can make an artistic statement – from a simple lit candle to a full-on music and light show. Whether you live in a high rise building or a double-bay fronted detached house, you can take part in Window Wanderland. The work of small children can sit alongside that of professional artists. Local businesses and organisations have got involved too. The community library has transformed itself into Doctor Who’s TARDIS, and I have to gulp back a tear as I pass my daughter’s closed primary school displaying a message of hope.

Event organiser Alison tells me that she wanted to help get people involved in Window Wanderland because she wanted to give “fun and hope” in a difficult time, and hoped that the event would lead to “an increase in community spirit despite social distancing”. Local resident Beki has also found participating in Window Wanderland a positive experience: “It’s been a nice opportunity to connect with my neighbours, which I hadn’t really done. Also a positive for my mental health – tough times,” she says.

Window Wanderland will run in the Chapelfields, Earlsdon, Whoberly and Spon End areas of Coventry until 26th February 2021. Other areas of Coventry are also taking part over the next few weeks, and you can find a detailed calendar here. If you’re elsewhere and interested in taking part, the Window Wanderland website can show you if there is an event planned for your area, and if there’s not, you can find out how to organise your own. I hope that the blisters that have appeared on my heels after last night’s window walk can hold out – because I can tell that I have many more miles of Coventry’s streets to walk over the next month!

Banner photo supplied by author, Lauren Wallace-Thompson: a local primary school offers a message of hope with this rainbow window depicting a child and a book.

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